I got a cup of coffee from the chuck wagon and sat down for a moment to think. Vi and Aaron wouldn’t wake up for a few hours yet. Should I wake them, or just leave a note? No, common decency demanded I say good-bye in person. I finished my coffee and went back to the tent.
To my surprise, they seemed shocked that I was leaving.
“But you’ve got such good ideas, and I was hoping you’d help run my games,” Aaron said.
“I thought you liked us,” Vi added. “We’ll help you work up your act. We’ll teach you everything we know.”
“And we’re going north soon, anyway,” Aaron reminded me. “You’re safer with us than on your own.”
They argued. They tempted me with money. They gave dire warnings of the hazards of the road. I countered all their arguments, feeling terrible the whole time. They weren’t trying to keep me out of selfishness. They really seemed to think I could fit in. I almost had them convinced to let me go, and they had followed me outside to wish me well, when Natasha came running up. “Stay and help with the animals, if you don’t want to perform” she said. “You’re good at it.”
Well, that only inspired Aaron and Vi to start their begging again, and it was all I could do to tear myself away. I swear I really should stop making friends on this journey. It only makes it harder to continue on.
My trip into town was a sad one. I had enjoyed the carnival and felt bad leaving. I couldn’t help wondering what such a life would’ve been like—living like a nomad and doing funny stunts for money. It’s not at all like the life I was born to, but not so different from my years with Unitas. If you’re going to have no real home, it’s better to bring happiness wherever you go than frighten and shoot people. Not that shooting people was a high priority for us in Unitas, but it seemed to happen a lot more often than we planned.
When I got to the outskirts of town, I came upon a distressing sight. An old building had collapsed, and it must have been huge, because a group of dusty people in rags were chipping away at the old concrete, scooping the resulting gravel into sacks. The workers were all thin and unhealthy-looking, and many were children. They coughed from the dust they created as they worked, but they kept on pounding. From time to time one would stand up to drag a full sack of gravel to a line of waiting mule wagons, and then go back to pounding rocks.
One of the mule carts was pulling onto the road with a full load as I passed, so I fell in beside the driver and asked what he was doing.
“Taking gravel to town. We’re fixing things up around this place.”
“Oh. Well, that’s good.” When the driver didn’t offer any more information, I cast about in my mind for a way to draw him out. “So is that a good crew you got back there? There sure are a lot of skinny kids.”
“If there are, it’s their own damn fault. The signs in town are clearly posted. No begging.”
“What if they can’t read?”
He looked at me askance. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse, Miss.”
“You’re right, of course.” What a cruel and stupid attitude. I hoped I wasn’t breaking any laws, too. “So is everyone working there a criminal?”
“Most are. But some are ordinary refugees and homeless people. Those ones are free to go anytime they want. But the others stay.”
When we got to town, the mule driver turned his wagon onto a side street and wished me a good day. I wished him the same, although I didn't really mean it, and headed toward the town center. This town was constructed much like the ones in my own country, with rings of decayed strip malls on the outskirts and more solid construction closer in. But once I was in town, I could see a real difference in how buildings were designed.
No adobe and vigas here!
I found the post office and asked how much it would cost to mail a letter outside the country. The postman had a chart with a lot of columns and numbers on it. He called it a matrix and with the aid of that and a map, we worked out a price. It wasn’t cheap, but I had Tanner’s money still, and I was feeling so bad for having neglected to write home that I think I would’ve paid just about any price the man had asked.
Feeling relieved to have done my duty by Auntie, I set out to find supplies for the road. The stores were stocked a little differently than at home. Pecans were easy to come by, but not piñones. I bought oats for Flecha and cornmeal for myself, but when I went to buy beans, they were of a different kind than I was used to. And the chiles were different, too. Beef jerky was plentiful, and I bought some of that, and I was able to get some coffee, too. And for a treat, I bought raisins and dried peaches. “Straight up from the hill country,” the shopkeeper assured me.
Since he seemed like a nice man, I asked for advice about the best way out of town. But when I said I was going to Kentucky, he seemed shocked.
“What are you going to the United States for, girl? Ain’t Texas good enough for you?”
“Sure,” I said, thinking fast. “It’s just I’ve got an aunt there who’s not expected to live much longer.”
“Oh, well that makes sense,” he said. “A lot of families got split up by the secession.”
“That’s for sure,” I said. “So is there a good road going northeast?”
He shook his head. “There’s one that follows the rail southeast. And there’s a good one going northwest.”
This was no good. “How about due north?”
He was about to shake his head no, but then smiled. “There’s a farm road going north. Go about twenty miles and you’ll hit the interstate. From there, you can go east all the way across Oklahoma and into Arkansas, assuming you want to take your chances with them hillbillies.”
I wasn’t sure what a hillbilly was, but it didn’t sound good. I remembered the Arkansas family I had met a couple months ago and thought the shopkeeper’s assessment of Arkansas people was unfair. Still, I wasn’t here to argue. “Where’s the farm road? It sounds perfect.”
He gave me directions and assured me there were no hazards or dangers other than what nature might provide. “Just be careful around the border,” he cautioned me. “It should be okay if you stick to the interstate, but some people still don’t know which team they’re playing for, and you’ll want to mind your own business.”
The farm road turned out to be old asphalt covered over with dirt. It wound around a lot, but the overall direction was north, just as the man in town had said, passing ranches and little shacks along the way. From time to time I could see a fancy house like Charlene’s set well back from the road and surrounded by fences and guards. But for the most part, it seemed like poor country, more full of dirt, animals and the occasional muddy creek than humans.
I didn’t meet up with a lot of other travelers, except for the a few farmers going to or from town. But when I came to the interstate around dusk, there were a lot of people, wagons and even a few motor vehicles on the road. There was still enough daylight that I had time to choose where I wanted to stop for the night, so I went down the interstate a little way, and when I saw something promising across a field and behind some trees, I went to take a look.
Obviously it was no longer open for business, and somewhere in all the surrounding dust, grass and weeds, I figured there must be a road buried, or else how would people have ever gotten here? Since the surrounding area looked pretty safe, I went in search of a room.
To my surprise, I startled a young mother with her three children, who were sheltering in what appeared to be the most sturdy of the rooms. I apologized for bothering her, and went in search of another place to sleep. I eventually found a room that didn’t seem too bad. There was a hole in the roof over the bathroom, but there was no reason to think the plumbing had worked in decades, so I didn’t care. The mattress was musty, but once I spread my tarp and blankets on it, it was as good as any patch of ground would’ve been.
I was standing in the middle of the debris-strewn carpet, trying to decide if I wanted to find a place to cook or just eat straight from my packs, when there was a tap at the door and it swung inward. The young mother smiled at me. She said her name was Catherine, and would I like to share supper with her family?
As it turned out, I contributed more to the meal than she did, but her children were so gaunt that I didn’t mind. I could find food more easily than they could. Catherine said she was on her way to Oklahoma City, where her mother lived. “My husband was killed in a railway accident two years ago,” she said. “I’ve been doing odd jobs since then, but it’s hard to work when you’ve got three little ones.” She waved a hand at her children. “So I’m going home, where my mother can help.”
I agreed that it was a good idea, but hesitated to make any offer to accompany her. They seemed like they might be a burden, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take responsibility for a whole family. So I was vague about my own travel plans, and after supper, I shared some raisins with the children and told them about the carnival. They liked hearing about the monkey and the trick dogs, but they got the most amusement out of the story about me and the parrot. Well, I guess it is pretty funny if it’s not you landing on your head.
I turned in early, and I think if I keep a good pace tomorrow I can make the border. I wonder if there will be guards, or if they’ll want me to pay money to cross? And what should I do about Catherine? She seems nice enough, and she clearly needs some help. Perhaps I’ll tell her that if she can keep my pace, she can come along. I don’t like the idea of being tied to so many people who can’t defend themselves, but Oklahoma City isn’t far, and if they can keep up with me, it should be all right.
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